Prolific kids lit author R.L. Stine cranked out 62 titles in his original “Goosebumps” series, selling some 400 million copies worldwide to young readers eager to delve into his kooky, creepy horror before graduating to become regular viewers of “The Walking Dead” or “American Horror Story.”
The books have never gone away and now comes a movie version of “Goosebumps,” a playful, horror-adventure romp that succeeds in translating Stine’s tried-and-true formula — “twists and turns and frights ... and a little personal growth for our hero,” as this knowing adaptation explains — to the screen.
The film’s appearance, coming a good generation after the series peaked in popularity, might mystify its original group of readers — Stine ended the series in 1997 — who will probably find its gentle, “Jumanji"-like fantasy elements to be a bit tame or, if they’re less forgiving, lame. But in a time when the gap between now and nostalgia has been reduced from decades to decimal fractions, older teens, if they’re not careful, might find much to enjoy here while sitting next to the movie’s targeted demo of tweens and their parents.
“Goosebumps” begins with high school hunk Zach (Dylan Minnette) moving to a small Delaware town with his mother (Amy Ryan) shortly after the death of his father. (It wouldn’t be a kids movie without a tragic, loss-of-a-parent back story.) There isn’t much doing around these parts, which makes the discovery of sweet, smart girl-next-door Hannah (Odeya Rush) feel huge. One problem: Hannah’s eccentric, protective father (Jack Black) makes it very clear that Zach must stay far away (like Maryland far away) from his lovely daughter.
The movie, written by Darren Lemke with the top-flight team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski receiving a story credit, takes a little time in establishing these characters, laying the foundation for an emotional connection between its young characters that will pay off later. Before laying on the goose bumps, there’s even a lovely scene between Zach and Hannah at what has to be the most exquisite abandoned amusement park in the world, the two teens sharing a magic hour moment atop a Ferris wheel in a forest.
But die-hard “Goosebumps” fans shouldn’t fear. The PG-rated scares come soon enough when it’s revealed that Hannah’s father is none other than famous author R.L. Stine and that he has good reason for warning kids to get off his lawn. It turns out that Stine’s imagination is so potent that his books’ creatures will spring to life if any of his original manuscripts are opened. That’s why he keeps them all safely under lock and key ... for a while, at least.
Once Pandora’s books are opened, director Rob Letterman (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) keeps the tone pitched nicely between humor and light horror and he’s helped by a well-chosen ensemble of supporting players that includes gifted comic actors Jillian Bell (“22 Jump Street”) and Timothy Simons (“Veep”). Young actor Ryan Lee, a standout in “Super 8" and ABC’s “Trophy Wife,” steals nearly every scene playing Zach’s self-appointed best friend, a grade A scaredy-cat and priceless walk-through-a-graveyard wingman.
The movie has plenty of the expected fun with its parade of B-movie, VFX-created creatures — a werewolf, giant praying mantis and an army of angry garden gnomes, among them — but it also possesses a sly self-awareness with its inspired idea of making Stine himself a character in the movie. “Goosebumps” gets some great mileage from the meta conceit, poking fun at Stine’s amazing productivity and popularity, even when compared with the author that the movie refers to, with a hilarious, snide familiarity, as “Steve King.” I have no idea as to the extent of the actual Stine’s peculiarities, but just going from his weird, wonderful work, every scene in the movie feels authentic compared with the version I carry of him in my head.
Black’s comic timing makes all the send-ups sing. Few actors can play broad, winking comedy and still bring home small, subtle character beats the way he can. To put it another way: It’s not easy to sell a delicate scene of regret when there are ghouls, bog monsters, bug-eyed aliens, toy robots and a homicidal ventriloquist’s dummy (superbly voiced by Black as something of Stine’s alter ego) bearing down on you.
It doesn’t work, as the fictionalized Stine says in the film, if it isn’t a real “Goosebumps” story. The movie’s triumph is that it very much is.
Rating: PG, for scary and intense creature action and images, and for some rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In general release